This is a blog of populist and liberal information and ideas, advancing the cause of truth and justice while fighting the ugly tyranny of right-wing oppression in Oklahoma and its surrounding environs.

Teachable Conflict

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Some of you might remember I made a formal open records request to view internal records of how the Norman School District handled rape and bullying allegations that recently spawned a large demonstration supported by the organization YES ALL Daughters.

To its credit, the district responded promptly to my request, and after a longer conversation with the district’s attorney in an effort to weed out superfluous material, I was given 141 pages of various emails and other documents related to the issue. It has taken me some time to go through all the documents and then decide how I might approach the matter.

Let me say upfront that I don’t believe the documents provided to me show any crucial errors by the Norman School District or its supporters on this issue. There are instances of tone among the documents that seem a little overly defensive to me, but that’s arguably understandable given the circumstances. I will discuss this defensiveness later in this post.

My main reason for writing this post is this: While Norman students and parents responded in force to the allegations and while the district eventually responded capably and openly to the ensuing protest, I wonder how many school districts there are in Oklahoma and across the country in which this wouldn’t have been the case. Norman is a university town next to a major metropolitan city. The issue received widespread media coverage inside and outside the state from mainstream media outlets and a major feminist web site. What about smaller towns in Oklahoma? Bullying, for example, is a major issue in our culture, and it’s probably no more prevalent than in our schools today.

Let me revisit some specific information about the issue. In the most general sense, rape and bullying allegations involving Norman High School students were reported to school authorities. One student, 18-year-old Tristen Killman-Hardin, was initially suspended from school and then eventually charged with two counts of first-degree rape of a 16-year-old student off campus on Sept. 19. A video of the alleged rape was apparently circulated among some students, according to a news report.

As the Cleveland Country District Attorney’s office investigated the case, more sexual abuse allegations from two other young women against Killman-Hardin surfaced, and at least one of all the alleged victims reported she was bullied at school in relation to the events. Eventually, a feminist-leaning knitting group in Norman got involved in the issue, contacted the national web site Jezebel with information about the cases involving the young women and helped formed the organization YES ALL Daughters. This was the organization that helped put together the student walkout and protest against rape and bullying on Nov. 24. Killman-Hardin was charged about a week later. Norman School District officials also announced the participants in a task force to study gender-based violence and bullying.

Case closed, right? Organized protest works! Well, not so fast.

Public school officials have the difficult task of mediating all sorts of complications among their students. When it rises to the criminal level, they are duty bound to report the information to police and cooperate in any official investigation, which was done in this case. Obviously, school officials can’t monitor student behavior outside of school settings, but what they can do is create an environment in which all students feel safe.

The question is whether the Norman School District or other school districts are doing enough to create safe and comfortable environments for students in these times of school shootings, cyber bullying, drug use and continued sexual violence against women in our culture, one of the historic tragedies of violent behavior. School should ALWAYS be a safe haven. No exceptions.

Before I try to answer the question, let me highlight a few of the items in the documents I received that indicated that some school district officials and one outside official might have been overly defensive about the criticism the district received over how it handled the rape and bullying allegations.

  • In a Nov. 10, 2014 email to Norman School Superintendent Joe Siano, Holly Nevels, who is listed on the district’s site as Director of Secondary Education, refers to one of the victim’s mothers in this way:

    “Scott also feels the victim's mom could now be caught up in the Facebook family/Jerry Springer aspect of this as well (just between us, of course). That certainly could be true, which is why he wants to speak to her again. He also thinks it is becoming about a cause for a certain group -- not really about best interest of the girl. Of course.”

    We can assume that Nevels is referring to Scott Beck, who is the principal of Norman High School. Demonizing bullying victims and those that support them is a classic reason of why it persists. It goes something like this: Oh, she/he is just crazy. He/she just needs to settle down. She/he has ulterior motives.

  • Along these same lines, Chad Vice, a member of the Norman School Board, wrote this about the issue in a Nov. 22 email to Siano:

    “I believe the social media posts still represents an extremely small percentage of the whole. It's most unfortunate that many of the people that are pleased with the district don't speak up but you and I both know that's not the way it works. Talk is cheap when the story is good.

    And then this:

    “I think we should be careful not to breathe any more life into this than has already been done. “

    And this:

    “I'm concerned that the only ones talking are the only ones being heard.

    And this:

    “Surely we have options to be more informative and shut this down.”

    What does Vice want to “shut down”? I want to hope it’s rape and bullying, but I will speculate he means in this context the media coverage, or the growing protest at the time, or even an intense public discussion about sexual violence and bullying in the Norman School District. Vice may have wanted the district to “be careful not to breathe any more life into this than has already been done,” but it’s crucial there’s public awareness about sexual violence against women and bullying. We need more exposure on these issues, not less.

  • Even Cleveland County Commissioner Rod Cleveland responded in a somewhat similar fashion in a Nov. 26 email to Cindy Nashert, another member of the Norman School Board:

    “It seems like one of the parents of the victims feels like the punishment is not happening quickly enough so they have taken it out on the school district and taken it public.”

    Again, I believe the focus here, though fairly innocuous, is too much on the behavior of the victims’ supporters and the media coverage. I’m assuming Cleveland means the parent complained and tried to get something done about the issue. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a parent complaining nor is there anything wrong if a parent takes an issue public. After all, the Norman School District is supported through public tax dollars and the public has the right to know what’s going on.

  • This has already been widely reported, but the day before the Nov. 24 protest Siano sent out a letter to parents of Norman High School students that claimed “there is information of which parents and guardians should be aware.”

    Siano went on to write, “We do not know who will be in charge of tomorrow's event. While we first believed this would be a student-led and organized demonstration, we are far less certain of that now. As of the writing of this letter, close to 1,000 people have RSVP'd on social media they will be attending. And, what was first communicated on social media as a demonstration that would be less than an hour in length has now evolved into an event that will occupy the front of Norman High until at least 4:20 p.m.”

    Note the very slight hint of paranoia here. I don’t want to exaggerate it. Siano might have felt some legal responsibility to send this out. Of course, we now know for sure the protest was a huge non-violent success that was well attended by local students and widely covered by the media, which translates into more awareness about sexual violence against women and bullying. I believe the walkout and protest ended up becoming a really GOOD thing for the district, the Norman community and state.

  • I’m not even remotely suggesting that Norman School District officials and their supporters tried to sweep any serious allegations under the rug or engage collectively in some secret effort to stop protestors. By far, the records I viewed, when appropriate, expressed in some form or another, overall sympathy and compassion. As I mentioned earlier, none of the documents revealed any crucial errors or organized secrecy. In fact, the documents lead me to fully retract my earlier call for Siano and Beck to step aside as the allegations were investigated.

    But it’s the culture that breeds sexual violence and bullying, and school officials, especially in a major university town near a large city, should be on the forefront of enlightenment when it comes to these two issues. The normal institutional reaction of wanting to contain and manage a festering issue in the media should never trump the idea that sometimes conflict becomes a teachable moment, that sometimes it’s best to embrace rather than to take cover, to accept, to improve and to grow. Students need to learn this through unequivocal modeling. Norman school officials could have done better with this issue as it emerged, but we can say that about most institutions, or even ourselves, in any given circumstance.

    But let me be clear about this: The Norman School District should absolutely use these recent incidents to become without question the leading role model for other Oklahoma school districts in dealing with sexual violence and bullying. Superintendent Siano should make this happen.

    So to answer the question I posed earlier about schools as safe havens, I think that school officials, collectively, and this includes college campuses, should do more to ensure the safety of their students. I hope this Norman case pushes every school administrator in Oklahoma to support or consider bolstering policies relating to sexual violence and bullying at our schools.

    Republican Lawmakers Attack LGBT Community

    Image of Oklahoma state Capitol and a church

    There’s no way else to view the recently proposed anti-gay legislation in Oklahoma than as the last gasp of desperate anachronistic lawmakers who want to force citizens to accept their closed-minded, limited worldview.

    That doesn’t mean we all shouldn’t push back in full throttle against the specific archaic legislation, but the march for LGBT equality is only increasing in numbers and strength.

    Same-sex marriage is now legal in 36 states, including Oklahoma, and the District of Columbia. The U.S. Supreme Court seems poised to rule in the near future that states cannot ban same-sex marriage. Even if it doesn’t, it’s extremely unlikely the court will overturn same-sex marriage in those states that now allow it. Such a ruling would be a logistical and inhumane nightmare that would be widely viewed as a huge human rights violation.

    LGBT stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered. People who identify within this community of people deserve full equality under the law here in Oklahoma and elsewhere, and that includes the right to marry someone of their own gender and to identify with any gender without discrimination.

    The anti-gay legislation filed so far includes the following bills:

    County clerks would no longer issue marriage licenses under House Bill 1125, sponsored by Republican Todd Russ of Cordell. Russ says the bill’s intent is to prevent county clerks from issuing licenses to same-sex couples.

    State Rep. Sally Kern, an Oklahoma City Republican who is infamous around the world for her hateful remarks about gay people, has introduced three anti-gay measures. House Bill 1599 would prohibit the expenditure of any government money to support same-sex marriage. House Bill 1598 would allow parents to force their gay children to undergo sexual-orientation conversion therapy without any government interference. House Bill 1572 would allow businesses to refuse service to anyone in the LGBT community.

    Under Senate Bill 440, sponsored by Republican state Sen. Joseph Silk of Broken Bow, religious institutions could deny employment or wedding services to anyone if it went against the institution’s particular religious beliefs.

    House Bill 1007, sponsored by Republican David Brumbaugh of Broken Arrow, would allow religious organizations the right to refuse to officiate at same-sex marriages.

    Sadly, I might have missed more bills trying to limit the rights of the LGBT community here.

    Here are short rebuttals to the legislation, which can be found by a bill number search on the Oklahoma State Legislature site:

    Kern’s and Russ’s bills are unabashedly unconstitutional, and the state will end up spending thousands upon thousands of taxpayers’ dollars in a losing effort to defend the legislation if it passes. County clerks have to follow the law. Any government money spent on marriage, in particular, would have to include same-sex couples under the law. Same-sex marriage is LEGAL in Oklahoma. Child abuse is against the law, and sexual-orientation conversion therapies are widely regarded as abusive. The state has a fundamental duty to prevent child abuse. A business can’t refuse service to people just because they identify with a certain group or sexual orientation. That takes us back to the Jim Crow era.

    All the bills relating to religious organizations are simply superfluous. Churches can already require their members follow specific guidelines for membership unless it’s a clear violation of a federal, state or local criminal law. For example, a minister could refuse to marry a different-gender couple until they went through approved marriage counseling. They could require marrying couples to state certain beliefs or swear certain oaths.

    All this legislation is just hateful backlash among angry people against the growing acceptance of the LGBT community and same-sex marriage in this country and, YES, that does include Oklahoma. The bills are either meaningless or will not pass constitutional muster. The religious fundamentalists here are simply kicking and screaming as the state moves forward in the twenty-first century.

    Now Replaying The 1980s

    Image of oil gusher

    There are two things making the fracking bust here in Oklahoma difficult to comprehend and analyze.

    First, the world oil glut caused by the hydraulic fracturing boom in Oklahoma and other states was based on poor planning and greed and was entirely predictable.

    Second, the local energy news reporting about the situation continues to be shallow if not simply propaganda, making it difficult to determine what major reductions lie ahead in terms of layoffs and overall reductions in government revenues, which affects everyone.

    Let’s deal with the first issue. It’s a case of simply supply and demand economics, a concept fairly neutral in terms of political affiliation. When there’s an over supply of anything for sale, either more demand must be created or the prices will drop. In the case of oil, which gets refined into gasoline, this country has made great and needed strides in recent years to reduce demand by producing cars that use less gasoline. In the case of natural gas, some of which fuels power plants and warms our houses and buildings, the country has reduced demand through solar and wind power.

    These basic facts don’t take a Harvard MBA to decipher. What has happened is that local big oil and gas companies have continued to deploy hydraulic fracturing or fracking to extract as much oil and gas from the ground here in Oklahoma despite clear warning signs the boom would go bust. These companies did this to make as much money as possible when oil prices were soaring artificially above $100 a barrel, knowing full well prices would eventually drop and production would slow. Right now, oil is below $50 a barrel. Companies need fracked-extracted oil to be at around $80 a barrel to break even.

    Meanwhile, local oil and gas companies with this full knowledge agitated for and won gross production tax cuts supported by Gov. Mary Fallin and the Republican-dominated legislature. What’s even worse, thousands of workers are facing possible layoffs here and elsewhere, which leaves even less money for the economy and government operations. Education funding in Oklahoma, for example, which is already one of the lowest in the nation, will probably see even more cuts. How low can we go? We’re going to find out.

    A sensible over-arching national and Oklahoma energy policy, one that protects the interests of citizens while allowing profits for oil and gas companies, is probably not possible in today's political climate, especially here. But as we get ready to relive the bleak 1980s here in this Oklahoma, let’s not forget this was preventable, and it was caused by conservatives inside and outside of government. It’s a teachable moment, of course, but I’m afraid no one will learn a thing.

    Reconsidering the 1980s in Oklahoma, a bleak economic time that I lived through as an adult, brings me to my next point about the local media. According to local energy writers here, the story goes like this: Yes, oil and gas companies will face a slump, but it will be nothing like the 1980s because the state’s economy is so diversified. Also oil prices will rise soon enough. Okay, in their defense, these local journalists are quoting the same old type of local “experts” saying the old predictable things they said in the 1980s, but given the ramifications and lessons learned one might expect some more enterprise and more piercing questions.

    How is the economy more diversified here? I don’t believe there’s been such a big shift. What about the fact that the ensuing layoffs from a major oil bust affects all sectors of the economy? Sure, auto dealers might sell more cars and trucking companies might benefit from lower gas prices, but that hardly compensates for a major oil bust. For example, a small business—let’s say it’s an upscale restaurant—might have to close because it now doesn’t have enough customers. That means more unemployed people who won’t be buying new cars or ordering the consumer goods trucked right to their front doors.

    The local energy writers don’t often consider in their calculations that an oil bust also can lead to a banking bust because banks leverage themselves during a boom because of the same greed motivating oil and gas companies. This is what happened to Penn Square Bank in Oklahoma City. It was closed in 1982 and led to the collapse of the larger Continental Illinois National Bank and Trust Company in 1984.

    If oil prices remain low, and there’s no reason to suspect otherwise unless—and here’s the basic trick played on us all, folks—there’s a sudden major war or violent conflict truly destabilizing oil-producing countries in the Middle East, then expect bank failures and/or nationally affiliated bank failures in Oklahoma and across the country. That means even more unemployed people.

    I don’t want to exaggerate how bad the economy was here in parts of the 1980s in Oklahoma because of the oil bust, but there wasn’t a lot of economic opportunity and there were a lot of empty buildings and the layoff announcements came in droves. The boom created a lot of new development that then went under during the bust. The malaise was palpable.

    Could Bricktown and other Oklahoma City downtown hot spots cool off economically in the recent bust if it’s an extended one, which then has a domino effect on other businesses? What about Oklahoma City Thunder ticket sales, especially the expensive seats? What about all those new apartment complexes in downtown Oklahoma City? Who’s going to live in them?

    I say get ready for the worst. If it doesn’t happen, then great. But I’m no way convinced that we’re not heading for a 1980s-style crash if not something worse.

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